Ro­man­tic spy mythol­ogy chal­lenged

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - JAMIE PORT­MAN

TORONTO — It was a bold Cold War ini­tia­tive. The aim was to fo­ment re­bel­lion in the Sovi­etoc­cu­pied re­gion of Ge­or­gia, on the Black Sea. And to this end, Bri­tain’s MI6 in­tel­li­gence ser­vice se­lected two young men from the ex­iled Ge­or­gian com­mu­nity in Paris to make an ex­ploratory foray into their Com­mu­nist-con­trolled home­land.

But within min­utes of slip­ping across a re­mote sec­tion of bor­der, one of them fell dead in a burst of gun­fire. The other was cap­tured, tor­tured and then killed.

The Sovi­ets were ex­pect­ing them — having been tipped off by Kim Philby, the charm­ing but de­vi­ous MI6 of­fi­cer who had just hours ear­lier sup­plied th­ese two young­sters with weapons, a ra­dio, a bag full of gold coins and words of en­cour­age­ment be­fore dis­patch­ing them to their doom.

For Soviet agent Philby, the up­per-class English­man re­garded by some as the great­est spy in his­tory, it was an­other case of mis­sion ac­com­plished.

Did he ex­pe­ri­ence guilt or re­morse? Why even ask?

Bri­tish writer Ben Mac­in­tyre, a best­selling spe­cial­ist in the spy trade, doesn’t shock eas­ily. But in re­search­ing his en­thralling new his­tory, A Spy Among Friends, he was shaken by the dou­ble-deal­ing Philby’s cal­lous­ness.

“It’s the sat­is­fac­tion Philby gets out of send­ing 20-year-old boys across the bor­der … know­ing they will prob­a­bly be mur­dered on the other side,” Mac­in­tyre says in an in­ter­view in the of­fice of his Cana­dian pub­lisher. “There’s an ici­cle in the heart here. You have to be of a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal stamp. Not only does he not ex­press any re­morse about what hap­pens to them, he ac­tu­ally glo­ries in it.”

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of words have been writ­ten about Philby, the Es­tab­lish­ment boy who em­braced Com­mu­nism as a stu­dent at Cam­bridge and was al­ready a Soviet spy by the time he was re­cruited into MI6 at the start of the Sec­ond World War. But Mac­in­tyre sees good rea­son for yet an­other book about this bril­liant but com­pli­cated man who fi­nally fled to Moscow in 1963 a decade af­ter he was first threat­ened with ex­po­sure.

For one thing, Mac­in­tyre feels it’s time to chal­lenge a grow­ing Philby mythol­ogy that tends to “ro­man­ti­cize him as a lov­able rogue who pulled one over on the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment.”

“But when you tot up the cost of what Philby did, that kind of mytho­log­i­cal cheery in­ter­pre­ta­tion of him falls away pretty quickly.”

Mac­in­tyre says Philby’s treach­ery, es­pe­cially af­ter the Sec­ond World War, cost an “in­cal­cu­la­ble” num­ber of lives. He com­pares Philby, who died in Moscow in 1988, to to­day’s Ji­hadists.

“He was a mass killer,” Mac­in­tyre says, “some­one who kills for plea­sure for a cause.”

A Spy Among Friends, pub­lished in Canada by McClel­land & Ste­wart, may be his­tory, but it reads like a lively thriller. Mac­in­tyre, whose pre­vi­ous best­sellers in­clude Op­er­a­tion Mince­meat and Agent ZigZag, was able to take ad­van­tage of new archival ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing newly re­leased doc­u­ments from Bri­tain’s MI5 se­cu­rity agency, and this helped bring new per­spec­tive to the scan­dalous story of the man whose high-rank­ing po­si­tion in Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence en­abled him to sab­o­tage two decades of An­gloU.S. Cold War spy op­er­a­tions.

Mac­in­tyre also gained ac­cess to the letters and diaries of Philby’s life­long friend and MI6 col­league Ni­cholas El­liott. That ex­plains the book’s sub­ti­tle — “Kim Philby And The Great Be­trayal.” The na­ture of that be­trayal? It was ul­ti­mately the be­trayal of friends and col­leagues who trusted him — El­liott and also CIA op­er­a­tive James An­gle­ton who, as head of U.S. counter- in­tel­li­gence, was later re­duced to para­noia af­ter learn­ing the truth about his old pal Philby.

Mac­in­tyre credits spy nov­el­ist John le Carre, who con­trib­utes a fas­ci­nat­ing af­ter­word to the book, with show­ing him a way into his story.

“We were walk­ing on Hamp­stead Heath, and I said, ‘What’s the best un­told story of the Cold War?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s Kim Philby and ... El­liott.’”

There’s a school­boy’s en­thu­si­asm about Mac­in­tyre as he re­calls this mo­ment. But there’s also the in­ci­sive­ness of a sea­soned Times of Lon­don jour­nal­ist as he ex­plains how up­per-class bonds of friend­ship — call it the old boys’ club or the old school tie — fa­cil­i­tated Philby’s en­try into the Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice, nur­tured his rise even as he con­tin­ued to spy against his coun­try and ul­ti­mately pro­tected him from ex­po­sure.

“I didn’t re­al­ize when I started, but it ended up be­ing a book about class,” Mac­in­tyre says. Class loy­al­ties came to the fore in 1963 when Par­lia­ment iden­ti­fied Philby as a key player in a high-level Soviet spy ring, but Philby sur­vived. An in­tensely loyal El­liott and other friends and col­leagues ral­lied to his de­fence, un­able to coun­te­nance the pos­si­bil­ity some­one from their back­ground could ever be a Com­mu­nist spy. “Stack­ing up all the clues about Philby,’ Mac­in­tyre says “I was con­stantly sur­prised by the wil­ful blind­ness that stopped MI6 from see­ing the truth.”

Was it sim­ply that Philby, charis­matic and charm­ing, had se­duced them into blind loy­alty? Not ex­actly. The prob­lem was Philby was su­perb at what he did.

Mac­in­tyre sees Philby as “a kind of ro­man­tic psy­chopath” driven by ar­ro­gance, elitism and a re­fusal to chal­lenge his own be­liefs. Philby’s no­to­ri­ous booz­ing and wom­an­iz­ing also sug­gests an ad­dic­tive per­son­al­ity that ex­tended to spy­ing.

The book be­gins and ends with a fate­ful 1963 en­counter in Beirut between Philby, now in a state of fright­ened, al­co­holic dis­in­te­gra­tion, and El­liott, the old friend who now has full knowl­edge of his treach­ery.

Even then, old class loy­al­ties were in op­er­a­tion and Mac­in­tyre has lit­tle doubt El­liott fa­cil­i­tated Philby’s flight to Moscow, un­der in­struc­tions from Lon­don to make this prob­lem go away. The last thing Bri­tain’s spy es­tab­lish­ment wanted was to see Philby ar­rested and stand trial.

Ran­dom House Canada

Ben Mac­in­tyre takes a new look at the ca­reer of traitor Kim Philby, above, whose ac­tiv­i­ties brought about the deaths of an ‘in­cal­cu­la­ble’ num­ber of peo­ple.

A Spy Among Friends Ben Mac­in­tyre McClel­land & Ste­wart

Ben Mac­in­tyre

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